Industrial Waste Makes for ‘Troubled Waters’ in Texas

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A kayaker paddles along the San Antonio River as part of the River Relay.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

A kayaker paddles along the San Antonio River as part of the River Relay 4K.

Texans treasure their state's natural waters, whether they swim in springs, fish in rivers, sail on bays, or vacation at beaches. These natural resources provide us with much of our drinking water and support a range of wildlife. Unfortunately, they’re also polluted.

The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality regularly compiles a list of water bodies that are too impaired for their primary use. According to the commission’s latest inventory, more than 9,400 miles of streams, 638,000 acres of lakes, and 774,000 acres of bays in Texas are classified as impaired – meaning that in many instances, they’re unsafe for swimming or fishing.

Our state’s waters are polluted by a variety of sources, but industrial waste discharges are among the most significant. Environment Texas recently reviewed data on how often the state’s 269 major industrial facilities failed to stay within the limits set by their pollution permits. Our “Troubled Waters” report found that from January 2016 to September 2017, Texas facilities exceeded their permit limits 938 times. In fact, our state ranked No. 1 in the country for most exceedances.

We also found that 49 percent of Texas facilities exceeded their permit limits at least once during the 21-month study period, and that 36 percent did so repeatedly. In fact, the state ranked first in the country for facilities with multiple exceedances. What's even more alarming, six facilities had exceedances that were 500 percent above their permit limit. The majority of exceedances happened at plants in the state’s major industrial hubs – the Beaumont, Houston, and Corpus Christi metro areas, and East Texas. But our study lists exceedances across Texas, including facilities near Austin, San Antonio, and Waco.

Texas also ranked third in the country for having the most excess discharges into waterways already classified as impaired. Our study lists 304 exceedances into impaired waters, including excess discharges by a LyondellBasell plant in La Porte, a Formosa Plastics factory on Lavaca Bay, a Motiva Enterprises plant in Port Arthur, and two Phillips 66 refineries, one in the Panhandle near Borger and another on the coast near Brazoria.

What were Texas’ industrial facilities dumping into our waters? A wide variety of pollutants, including E. coli and enterococci bacteria, which indicate the presence of other disease-causing pathogens; metals like aluminum, copper, nickel, and zinc; nitrogen and ammonia; oil and grease; and solid waste.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of exceedances go unpunished. Nationwide, less than 3 percent of all non-compliant facilities faced enforcement actions from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016. Even when fines were issued, they were often lower than what would be needed to discourage polluters. In 2017, the EPA issued median fines lower than in any year since 2011.

In the 21st century, we know how to produce things without pollution. Industrial discharges can be reduced by stronger enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act. This means tightening pollution permit limits, performing more on-site facility inspections, and ensuring that citizens can bring enforcement lawsuits when agencies don’t do their job. This also means ensuring that the Clean Water Act applies to all waterways as laid out in the Clean Water Rule, which restored protections to more than 143,000 miles of Texas streams.

When the Clean Water Act was passed 45 years ago, Congress declared that all of our waterways would be clean by 1983 and that all direct discharge of pollutants would cease by 1985. Decades later, 40 percent of our nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams are still polluted.

It’s time for Texans to speak up and tell our officials that we want clean water now.

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